Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Get On Up

(USA/UK, 2014)

I have a great admiration for James Brown as a music maker, and have enjoyed listening to his stuff, but I can’t say I’m a big fan. I guess this southern white boy just grew up liking other genres better than R&B and funk. I know very little about his life story. But boy oh boy, the man could put on a show. He deserved every bit of his two unofficial titles: The Godfather of Soul, and the Hardest Working Man in Show Business. And dancing? Before Michael Jackson was even born James Brown was moving across the stage as if it were ice.

As a biopic this is only so-so. It jumped across time in a way I sometimes found distracting, from his early days in extreme poverty, beaten by his father and abandoned by his mother, to his increasingly erratic later days as a rich man. In that period he seemed to always refer to himself as James Brown, and called even his closest friends Mr. So-and-so. And it seems he didn’t have many close friends. He dismissed band members left and right, displayed little or no loyalty to them, and toward the end managed to drive off even his longtime friend Bobby Byrd, who went all the way back to the Famous Flames days. He married four times (only two of them are shown here) and was sometimes abusive to the women. All in all, not a very nice man … as portrayed here.

Was it accurate? I don’t know, and don’t really care. (Some say the movie was actually cleaned up a bit.) The story is so, so familiar, the journey up from nothing, the jail time, the rise to fame, the eventual use of drugs and its aftermath. It feels as if they probably re-wrote a lot of his life for dramatic purposes … and again, I don’t care. I watch movies like this for the music, and for the actor in the main part, and in both respects it hit the ball out of the park.

Chadwick Boseman is completely uncanny in bringing the man and his music to life. I think he might have been wearing some sort of dental appliances to make his jaw line a little more Brownish, and the make-up department deserves a shout-out for the many, many outrageous hair styles, ditto the costume designer. He completely captures the way Mr. Brown spoke, a sort of rapid mumble in down-south dialect. (I was very grateful that I was able to use the CC button, or I would have missed most of the dialogue.) I found out that Boseman did not do the actual singing (though most who know him seem to agree that he is a good singer in his own right), but he lip-syncs to Brown’s actual voice so well that I was completely fooled. And I don’t really mind that, either.

A final note: The thing I always enjoyed most in seeing clips of James Brown’s concerts was the bit near the end. I don’t know if he did this all the time, but I’ll bet it was frequent. He becomes a ball of sweat and tangled hair, and collapses down to his hands and knees, utterly exhausted. “I done give y’all ever’thing!” he seems to be saying. “I ain’t got no mo’! Fact, I’m fixin’ to die!” His minions gently wrap him in a shiny cloak and help him stagger to his feet. With their arms around him, they gently help him toward the wings as the band and the dancers carry on. Then he begins to struggle. He shakes the minions off, throws off the cloak, and limps back to center stage. “I ain’t done singing to y’all yet! You cain’t keep James Brown down!” Like, I said, what a show!